by Robert Jonas - Center Line Soccer

As Major League Soccer nears the conclusion of its sixteenth season, the organization is making the transition from a struggling fringe league to an important part of the American sporting landscape. Attention from the classic and on-line media and the availability of games both in live venues and on television have never been higher in this country.

For a league that reportedly lost nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in its first decade, 2010 is seeing some teams finally turning an annual profit — even as the country endures difficult economic times. Fans are embracing MLS in ever greater numbers, and new teams have been joining the league every year since 2005. At league headquarters in New York City, I can imagine the broad smiles and back-slapping that must be going on in the boardroom when looking back at how far the league has come.

However, back at the community level, the growth of MLS is having a divergent effect on the individual teams’ local fans and supporters. With each passing season, the idea that these people are actually “stakeholders” in the organizations’ success is fleeting. In fact, I will go so far as to say that identifying with these teams in the traditional sense as “football clubs” is fading fast. Your connection with your local “club” will soon be measured solely in terms of the dollars and time spent on their products and services. Oh sure, we’ll probably still have teams that feel the need to have the word “club” in their titles, but any semblance to the organizations of the past from which they borrow that term will cease to be.

I guess at this point I should clarify what I define as a “football club” in order to support my point of view. Using the traditional definition shared by many teams in a variety of sports, a club is an sporting organization where the community invests their efforts toward a common goal. In soccer, this means a team that is local owned and operated by the same people that participate and follow the progress of that team. Those that invest in the club are given the right to provide input to the club’s management team, and even elect those officials that run the club on a daily basis. The club then returns that investment through entertainment and value.

These “clubs” exist around the world, and are often found playing in local amateur and semi-professional leagues. There are even some well known examples running today in major professional sporting organizations — FC Barcelona in Spain and Ebbsfleet United in England for soccer, and the Green Bay Packers in the NFL for football. In Germany, governance dictates that all soccer clubs must have a majority of ownership be in the hands of the community, though this still leaves room for individual owners to acquire shares just below that threshold. Very few “clubs” remain in professional sports, and none currently exist in MLS.

The notion of “the club” came to the forefront recently in a speech given by former MLS San Jose Earthquakes General Manager and NASL Earthquakes player Johnny Moore at a charity dinner last month. Moore was the keynote speaker for the Soccer Silicon Valley (SSV) Community Foundation’s annual awards banquet which is supported and heavily attended by members of the Earthquakes organization. He rather brazenly took the opportunity to decry the fact that business-only minded people had taken away the sport from the true soccer people. He felt that the push to make money had superseded the club’s true responsibility to be a torch bearer for the community. He went so far as to call out San Jose Earthquakes ownership and management for their failure to embrace the traditional idea that these local relationships should come first. Moore, harkening back to the teams he witnessed as a youngster in Scotland, deemed the Earthquakes not worthy of holding the identity of a “football club.”

Moore was certainly bold with his remarks about the Quakes, but he was not the only one to cry foul of policies of their local team. In two well publicized instances recently, supporters groups in Seattle and Toronto have raised their voices to express displeasure with their “football clubs.” Focusing mainly on the issues of season ticket packages and their costs, these organized protests have at least garnered official responses from the organizations. Both teams have announced new policies and price points moving forward in an effort to placate their supporters’ concerns. Maybe the Seattle Sounders FC and Toronto FC — two MLS franchises that invoke the notion of being a club by identifying themselves as such — were at least responding in a way that Moore might generally approve of.

But really, in both these cases, the issues are not organizational but really that of straightforward customer complaining. The ticket buyers are consumers of a product, and they are voicing their displeasure at the perceived return on their investment. For me, this illustrates clearly the notion that TFC and Seattle Sounders FC are not true “clubs” — supporters do not garner any financial return on their purchases. Pure and simple, they may or may not be entertained during the matches they purchase tickets for, and that is as far as the relationship goes.

Looking back at Johnny Moore’s history in San Jose, it is not surprising that he evoked the “club” ideal while standing tall atop the speakers’ dais that September evening. Moore was a not just a player on those early ‘70s NASL Quakes teams, but also served in various management roles as well. Despite being born in Scotland, he proudly played for the US Men’s National Team in their failed qualifying run toward the 1974 World Cup, collecting 11 caps along the way. When the MLS Earthquakes hired him as General Manager in 2002, Moore quickly connected with the local fan base, though his stint lasted just over a year. A true believer in the fan-team relationship, and a fervent supporter of meeting the needs of the community, he resigned in early 2004 in protest at the ownership’s efforts to sell and relocate the team from the Bay Area.

In the wake of Moore’s resignation, when it became clear that the team was in danger of leaving, a group of local soccer supporters founded SSV. Their goal was to details the economic reasons that soccer was both fiscally viable and important to the Bay Area. When ownership, the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), finalized plans to move the franchise to Houston following the 2005 season, SSV was instrumental in convincing MLS to allow the history and records of the Earthquakes to remain in San Jose until a new ownership group could be formed.

One of the original ideas floated by the SSV membership of local sports and business leaders was to restart the franchise using the model of a true community-owned club. They went so far as to hire legal representation to determine how this could be done and how much money would be necessary. Unfortunately for those interested in seeing MLS return to San Jose in time for the 2006 season, these efforts did not get beyond the preliminary stages, and SSV morphed into being an advocacy group for professional soccer in the Bay Area.

In 2007, with the urging of SSV and other local interests, the owners of the Oakland Athletics of Major League Baseball agreed to terms with MLS to restart the Quakes franchise in the Bay Area under the usual sports ownership model — with that the latest promising effort at establishing a true and traditional “football club” failed. The team returned to the field in time for the 2008 season, and went about selling their product to local consumers. Success on the field was slow to come, but in this their third season, the team is preparing for their first trip to the MLS Cup playoffs. Almost from the team’s reincarnation, a new soccer stadium has been promised to the fans, but that project does not have a specific timeline for completion.

Despite this track record of organizational growth since rejoining the league — all of it being financed at a reported loss by ownership — Johnny Moore still saw fit to proselytize his sentiments that we all had a responsibility to put the “club” first. For Moore, “we” was defined as the owners, the team management, the players, and everyone in the local soccer community. He wanted to see more involvement from those with vast knowledge of the game and its place in the Bay Area. He asked for there to be transparency when it came to personnel and business decisions within the organization. When he repeatedly chanted the mantra that “The club is the club is the club is the club,” the majority of those in attendance cheered with a level of fervor usually reserved for the stands at an actual match. He pleaded that the passion for club exhibited that night from the audience to be infused into the Earthquakes boardroom.

It is too bad that Moore forgot that the only vestiges of a “football club” that can be identified with the San Jose Earthquakes are represented by the badge on their uniforms. Heck, even that logo is trademarked by MLS and cannot be reproduced without the written consent of the league. No, Moore’s notion of a football club is highly unlikely in San Jose as it is throughout the league. These are franchise units of a single entity business that are making every effort to make money for their ownership groups. The management and the players are incredibly accessible to their fans, but by no means are they personally accountable. As a consumer, you can vote with your wallet, or try to organize supporter group protests like were seen in Toronto and Seattle, but the fact remains that MLS, like all modern professional sports, is all about the business of making money.

So sorry Johnny, you and the rest of us only are part of the “club” when we purchase their goods and services. Asking for a stadium, especially one that is funded directly by the team, is a fool’s errand if you are not stepping up to contribute financially to its construction. You are welcome to feel a part of the club when you wear a team jersey around town, or discuss the team’s fortunes with your friends at a local watering hole, but your connection to the team is only guaranteed to reward you emotionally. It might even say that in the fine print of your season ticket agreement, but if it doesn’t it probably should be.

Maybe that is enough, as it seems to be for the thousands that flock to stadiums around the league. Maybe that is the depth of which the connection to club will ever be made in our modern-day MLS. That doesn’t seem to be any different than for most soccer leagues around the world or for any of the other major sports leagues here in America. At least for me, the emotional return I receive from following professional soccer here in the Bay Area and across the country seems very much worth the price of my investment. However, for Johnny and the rest of you, if that is not enough, you are always free to walk away.

Robert Jonas is a writer and podcaster at Center Line Soccer and a frequent contributor to CSRN’s Around The League MLS show. He can always be reached on his twitter @robertjonas.
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